A rich portrait of Penelope Lively’s long and eventful life
Penelope Lively’s “Dancing Fish and Ammonites” is a masterly and deeply human memoir by Lively, the Man Booker Prize-winning British novelist.
Special to The Seattle Times
‘Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir’
by Penelope Lively
Viking, 234 pp., $26.95
This delightful and engrossing memoir by the 80-year-old award-winning novelist Penelope Lively accomplishes everything one could wish for in autobiographical writing. It is thought-provoking, evocative, masterly, deeply human, and — at a mere 234 pages — also succinct.
And it’s unconventional, too: a preface and a set of five interrelated meditations on memory, history, books, beloved objects, and the process of the evolution of a human being over a series of decades. Not for Lively is the ordinary memoir that begins with birth and early childhood, marching sequentially on through adulthood and into old age. We discover snippets of the author’s fascinating past, through the “moth-eaten” fabric of memory that makes certain events vividly recollected, while others recede as if they’d never happened.
Hers was an eventful childhood. Lively’s father was a British diplomat, and she was born in Egypt, where her early years were colored by the events of World War II and by the vivid sights and sounds of Cairo. She was sent to boarding school in England, going on to study history at Oxford, and meeting her husband — whose death at 69 has deprived Lively (in common with many in her demographic) of her lifetime companion. Very little space is accorded to the fact that she also wrote more than two dozen books, most of them novels, and some of them highly acclaimed (her 1987 novel “Moon Tiger” won the Man Booker Prize).
An avid reader who cherishes and revisits her collection of blue Pelican paperbacks, Lively recounts the changes wrought by aging, concluding that “So this is old age, and I am probably shedding readers by the drove at this point. ... And if it sounds — to anyone — a pretty pallid sort of place, I can refute that. It is not.
“I am as alive to the world as I have ever been — alive to everything I see and hear and feel,” she writes, noting that she is reading John Lanchester’s “Capital” very slowly “because it is the sort of capacious novel I like and I don’t want it to end.” Lively observes that old age involves “a sea-change” leading to “an almost luxurious appreciation of the world that you are still in. Spring was never so vibrant; autumn never so richly gold.”
There are losses, too, of course: the “collapsing years of old age,” in which time whizzes by in a way it never did during childhood, when a year was an eternity. “What has happened to time, that it whisks away like this?” Lively ponders. In some of the most moving passages, she argues passionately for the teaching of history: “If you have no sense of the past, no access to the historical narrative, you are afloat, untethered ... You will not have an understanding of time, and a respect for memory and its subtle victory over the remorselessness of time.”
The final chapter, “Six Things,” focuses on treasured objects (including the two objects of the book’s title: the thousand-year-old pottery shard with dancing fish, and a rock with two little fossils picked up on a Dorset beach). We learn why these deeply personal, beloved objects are springboards to important memories. Lively’s book may well become a similarly treasured object for her readers.
Melinda Bargreen is the former classical music critic for The Seattle Times. She’s a freelance contributor to the Times and reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM (www.king.org).